WORCESTER, Mass.—Having had the Crusaders’ number in recent memory, Harvard was favored to drop Holy Cross for the fourth time in four seasons heading into Tuesday night’s matchup.
And yet with 2:27 to play in the first half, a Hart Center crowd of 1,892 erupted into cheers as a put-back by Crusader forward Dave Dudzinski gave the hosts a six-point advantage.
Making only his second career start, the sophomore rotated with junior center Phil Beans—who missed all but seven games last season due to injury—to provide a stiff first-half challenge to the Crimson’s combination of co-captain Keith Wright and junior Kyle Casey. During the first period, Holy Cross had a 24-18 edge in points in the paint, as its relatively unheralded big men crashed the offensive glass, found open cutters, and finished at the rim.
Though it struggled to convert its own second-chance opportunities early on, Harvard maintained its aggressiveness throughout the half and was rewarded with consistent trips to the free throw line, where it took 14 attempts compared to the hosts’ four. The Crimson reached the bonus period with over 10 minutes left in the frame and went on to sink 10-of-10 attempts at the stripe leading up to intermission.
Accordingly, the success of the Crusaders inside dropped as its small stable of big men dwindled. Despite gathering team-highs of eight rebounds and four blocks, Beans fouled out at 11:54 in the second, and forward Taylor Abt joined him on the bench two minutes later. Dudzinski managed to avoid the same fate until 8:08 was left in the contest. A motivated Harvard ended up with a 28-10 advantage in paint scoring in the final half.
Though the emergence of the Crusaders in the paint may have been a surprise, the team’s reliance on the play of its primary ball-handlers was not. All-Patriot League second-team guard Devin Brown and junior wing R.J. Evans, a former Patriot League Rookie of the Year, had a game-high 17 and 13 points, respectively.
But the Holy Cross starting backcourt of the 6’1 Brown and 5’9 freshman Justin Burrell seemed to have found its match in Harvard’s physical guards—especially, junior Brandyn Curry.
“Brandyn has long range with his arms and quick hands, and I thought he did a tremendous job of getting deflections and then getting up the floor,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
Brown and Burrell combined for 13 turnovers on the night.
With under eight minutes to go in the game and the Crimson clinging to a four-point lead, Curry’s quick hands stripped a charging Brown, leading to a three-point play by co-captain Oliver McNally. Two Crusader possessions later, Curry poked the ball away from Burrell on a drive and eventually was fouled on a coast-to-coast layup try. Holy Cross’s Dee Goens then tried a dribble drive, but he too had his pocket picked by Curry, whose fast-break layup gave Harvard a lead that would not fall below double digits until the final play of the game.
ROCKY ROOKIE ROAD
Although a total of four Crimson freshmen, including guard Corbin Miller and forward Jonah Travis, saw action Tuesday, two in particular came off the bench to tip the night’s outcome in Harvard’s favor. Besides providing another interior presence while Wright battled early foul trouble, Steve Moundou-Missi helped Harvard close the first half on a high note with a pair of layups. He saw less action in the second, when Wright went on a tear straight out of intermission, but he finished the night with six points on 3-of-4 shooting along with a pair of rebounds.
In the second half, his classmate Wes Saunders shined. In a two-minute span, the highly touted rookie—who received offers from Colorado and USC—scored eight straight points, converting two of a trio of possible three-point plays.
“Wes doesn’t have a great outside game, but he really knows how to get to the rim and use his body and use his strength,” McNally said.
The sequence showed off everything the uber-athletic wing has to offer: first, a steal and a race down the floor with two defenders draped all over him; next, a drive into the paint for a layup; and finally, a strong move right at the basket while drawing contact. Although the class of 2015 had its fair share of mistakes, including a turnover that set up a key Holy Cross three-pointer, Saunders closed out his night with a two-handed slam off a feed from Curry, tallying Harvard’s final points of the night.
“We don’t play as well—or maybe we don’t win—without Wesley Saunders this evening,” Amaker said.
—Staff writer Dennis J. Zheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.